When someone thinks of a legendary Welsh winger who plied his trade in Manchester, people nowadays would be forgiven for thinking immediately about Ryan Giggs. However, a century before Giggs first began terrorising defenders for Manchester United, Billy Meredith was one of the most well-known footballers in the country. An innovator both on and off the pitch, Billy Meredith was a fascinating individual whose impact on the game can be felt to this day.
Beginning his career at Northwich Victoria, Meredith joined Manchester City in 1894 and while there began his rise to footballing stardom. While his spell at City was not particularly trophy laden, he picked up just one FA Cup and a Second Division title, Meredith wowed supporters with his attacking panache and signature style, playing the game with a wooden toothpick in his mouth. Despite this his first spell at City ended in a less than savoury fashion. After 12 years at City he was suspended by the Football Association and subsequently dismissed by the club following allegations he offered money to an opponent to throw a match.
Following his dismissal by Manchester City Meredith crossed the city and joined Manchester United, where he enjoyed a hugely successful spell, collecting an FA Cup, two Charity Shields and two Football League Championship medals and became an iconic figure who is remembered to this day.
Despite the successes Meredith had on the pitch, what made him such a fascinating character was how he established a media career beyond playing the game and his interest in the players’ union, an interest which he had during his playing career and carried on through his retirement.
Following his retirement from playing football in 1924, at the impressive age of 47, Meredith began to develop a media career, appearing in the football based feature film The Ball of Fortune. Following this he made numerous appearances on radio and television programmes, where he would often discuss the way the game had changed from his time playing and tell stories from his illustrious career. During an appearance he made on the show The Soccer Game he told the audience of the time, in an international match against Ireland, where he hit a shot so hard he managed to break the cross-bar.
The work that Meredith did in forming the Players’ Union was arguably his most important achievement. As he became tired of seeing players restricted by the authorities and kept on capped wages, he took it upon himself to organise and chair the first meeting of the Players’ Union. This was met with anger by the Football Association who swiftly called for all players to resign from the union. Meredith’s Manchester United side was the only team in the country not to bow to the demands of the FA and were suspended from playing football, leading to them taking on the moniker of The Outcasts FC for a short period (pictured above, note Meredith second from the right on the top row). This dispute was eventually settled and Manchester United returned to playing, yet Meredith was not satisfied and through the rest of his life strove to get his fellow footballers a better deal, more say over their contracts and make it easier for them to move clubs should they wish to.
Although he began his playing career a good 100 years before the likes of Giggs and Beckham, Billy Meredith became a footballing superstar in his own right. His successes on the pitch, his indiscretions and his post-playing media appearances where he would often bemoan the way the game had changed, are in reality not much different to the footballing personalities of today. While the scale of fame and fortune may have changed, the life of a footballer perhaps isn’t as different as one would imagine.